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How to mentor teachers

Mentoring is the glue that holds together the professional development of teachers and school leaders. It builds teachers’ confidence; done well it even keeps them in the profession.

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It comes as no surprise then that mentoring plays a central role in the Early Career Framework (ECF) which underpins the professional development of new teachers joining the profession.

Happily the framework also offers many more opportunities for experienced teachers to become mentors to new teachers.

Two teachers talk at their mentoring meeting

What is mentoring?

At the heart of effective mentoring is a powerful, yet underused word, connection. The role of a mentor extends beyond instructing. It is more than telling someone what they should do, or how to plan for a lesson.

Effective mentoring creates the environment and facilitates the space for mentees to grow and develop their personal and professional goals. The best mentoring creates a permanent connection between the mentee and teaching, by building professional confidence and expertise.

Put simply, mentoring is when an experienced professional (the mentor) assists a less experienced professional (the mentee) in developing specific skills and knowledge.

To help explain what mentoring is, let’s mention a few things that mentoring is not. It is not line managing, telling a colleague what to do, counselling and it is not personal. The relationship between mentor and mentee is not personal because there is a clear power imbalance between the two.

Mentoring is a professional partnership between two people – it is ‘relational’ (coaching is functional). It is usually a long-term relationship that needs to be based on mutual trust and respect. An effective mentoring relationship can only be achieved if the mentor is listening to the needs of the mentee, developing existing knowledge, introducing them to new skills and connecting them to the wider community of professionals.

With a third of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years, it is important that early career teachers feel they are supported and connected to the culture and wider network of the school. Being isolated in your classroom, unclear of the direction of your career and how to progress needs to come to an end, and this starts with effective mentors.

Teachers feeling connected to their school and teaching is essential if we want to keep them in the profession. Effective mentoring extends teachers knowledge and skills into a deep understanding of what teaching is and can be; a rewarding career that transforms lives.
Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope, Professor of Education and Provost of Marjon University Cornwall

How to mentor teachers

We’re about to delve into the details of how to run effective mentoring, but let’s start with a quick checklist of behaviours essential to effective mentoring in schools:

  • Share your professional skills – help the mentee to build their knowledge and expertise; remember the aim is to help them find their way, not pass on your way.
  • Be a positive role model – be enthusiastic and lift up your mentee; be real and honest about how you dealt with your own weaknesses as a new teacher.
  • Provide constructive feedback and outline where the mentee could improve and write it down, so they’ve got something to take away and reflect on.
  • Build the relationship so that the mentee feels comfortable to ask for help; ensure total confidentiality as this will help with developing openness and trust.
  • Work on one goal at a time - classroom management is a good starting point to help new teachers feel in control and get their pupils’ learning on track.
  • Listen, listen, and listen some more; celebrate their successes, remember you’re there to guide them, but the mentee needs to come to their own conclusions.

Sounds great huh? So how do you make this work in practice? The process of change for the mentees begins with conversations. Here are three ways to get those conversations flowing…

1. Ask open questions such as ‘tell me about your relationship with your colleagues?’. Avoid leading questions such as ‘do you have a problem with your colleagues?’. Leading questions subtly prompt a response in the person and may influence the way they answer it.

2. Active listening when others are talking - often, our minds are racing onto different topics or planning what we are going to say in response. When we are waiting to speak, we are not fully listening to what the other person is saying. This means we can miss important information.

When your mentee is talking try to:

  • Pay attention - Try to make eye contact and block out outside noise, such as other conversations. Resist the urge to plan what you are going to say when they have finished talking. If you have listened attentively, the conversation will carry itself.
  • Show that you are listening - Try nodding your head and smiling: this signals to the other person you are still with them.
  • Provide feedback - All of us hear information through our own personal filters and judgements, this can affect our understanding. To make sure that you have heard them and understand them correctly, try repeating what they have said. You can also ask more questions to encourage them to open up.
  • Don’t interrupt - Once the other person has finished talking, you can respond with an honest answer, but do your best not to interrupt them, as this will disrupt their flow and may leave them feeling misunderstood.

3. Constructive feedback - the key is to offer solutions instead of simply pointing out the negatives in a person’s behaviour. Some tips:

  • Focus on observation - Try to pay attention to the facts of their behaviour, not what you have inferred about their behaviour. Try not to make assumptions.
  • Focus on the things that can be changed - Some things are simply out of one’s control. Constructive feedback should be about things your mentee can improve on.
  • Focus on behaviour, not the individual - Constructive feedback should be about what the individual is doing, not a judgment on who they are.
  • Provide solutions - Constructive feedback should provide specific solutions, not vague or abstract ideas.

Mentoring is a vehicle for change

Effective mentoring focuses on supporting change and transitions for the mentee. The process of change starts with conversations. The mentor is there to advise and guide the mentee about what goals to set and how they can go about achieving them. The mentor is there to support the mentee in their professional development. They are not there to judge where the mentee is at in their career, it follows that the goals should be driven by the mentee and not based on the mentors view of things.

Once a goal is established the mentor can actively help the mentee to get there in three ways…

1. Be supportive - It’s important to create opportunities for mentees in their professional learning. Promoting an open culture whereby they can observe the teaching styles of more experienced members of staff will help them to feel connected and they will pick up tricks of the trade. Establishing a ‘safe place’ in which the mentee can fail and to thrive is essential. For example, if they are doing something that they feel is particularly ineffective, it’s important that they have the confidence to talk to you about it.

2. Be enabling - Set your mentees expectations about what teaching really is. Don’t hide aspects of it from them. They will then have the confidence to be able to deal with issues as they arise. Open doors for your mentee, encourage them to speak to people within your wider networks, such as professional colleagues who understand and can support them with an area of their professional development.

3. Empower them – At the outset of the mentoring relationship, the mentee is typically quite dependent on the mentor for advice and problem-solving. The mentee then grows increasingly independent, enabled by feedback and self-reflection on their own actions. By the end of the mentoring relationship, there is a two-way discussion, with the mentor acting simply as a sounding board as the mentee has grown enough to do a lot of their own problem-solving. The mentee learns to make good decisions.

You’re working together, mentor and mentee, to create a relationship where the mentee develops the confidence to find the answers in themselves to the questions that are arising in their teaching practice.

How to run effective mentoring sessions

Within your first session you need to set expectations. The mentor must establish the content, timeframe, and the method of mentoring and agree this with the mentee.

Get to know your mentee as an individual. What are their values? Why did they choose to teach? What values do you share? Remember to ask your mentee what they want from you. It might sound simple, but it’s essential to take the time to ask about what your mentee wants to learn from your expertise. They might surprise you!

You don’t need to rush the mentoring process. As the mentor you’re the expert, and undoubtedly there will be lots of knowledge and skills for you to pass on. The mentoring sessions will go a lot smoother if you set up a clear plan to structure your mentees professional development and learning, so they can become a better teacher. To fail to plan is to plan to fail and all that.

Mentoring is not line managing and you are not there to judge your mentee. ‘Judgementoring’ is a big ‘no no’ and will destroy trust and stop professional development.

Learning the skill of teaching is not a linear process. It helps to think of it as a cycle - Do, Review, Conclude, Adapt and Plan. It helps to use the Early Career Framework (ECF) as a stepping stone for different stages of the teaching journey; look at the ECF syllabus together and agree where you're going to start. At the end of each mentoring session, mentor and mentee need to leave with clear actionable goals to put into practice before the next session.

Keep goals simple and realistic. Some example goals for early career teachers would be:

1. Adapt one teaching approach you have tried to include something different that has been evidenced to improve the way students learn. Review its success.

2. Observe an experienced teacher in your subject area or phase (be ready to share your observations with your mentor at the next session).

3. Use open questions more in lessons.

4 .Check that you are considering all students’ progress (not just those that are vocal or more engaged).

The mentoring process - Do, Review, Conclude, Adapt and Plan

The virtuous circle of mentoring sets out some great principles to remember as you shape your mentoring sessions. It sees the mentor and mentee establish shared values, develop opportunities for reciprocity, grow respect, set expectations, and build connections.



Virtuous circle of mentoring - Reciprocity, Respect, Expectations, Connections and Values

Developing effective mentoring practice

Developing an effective mentoring practice is essential if you are going to impact positively on your mentees. Answering these questions will put you in a good position to develop not only effective sessions with your mentees, but a good mentoring practice:

  • What outcomes do you want mentoring to have for your school, your mentee and yourself?
  • Do you know what the resources are that you need to enact your mentoring plan?
  • How will you access to the resources you need to enact your mentoring plan?
  • How will you evaluate that the outcomes of the mentoring have been achieved?

Keep coming back to these questions and use them to help you evaluate how you as a mentor are progressing week-by-week. Like any practice, it gets easier with time but, needs consistent attention to feel like you are having noticeable effects.

So, what are the signs of successful mentoring? Well as the mentee grows, you’ll notice their increasing their confidence and see them develop wider networks of influence as they get to know more members of the school community. You’ll also see increasing self-awareness in the mentee (and few signs of the isolation they may have experienced as they navigate the early days of a teaching career).

It’s not often we get to see the positive effects we have on people and mentoring is a fantastic way to help others flourish whilst developing a worthwhile skill and sense of purpose. If you have the chance to mentor then go for it; give it your best and you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction rarely experienced in the workplace.

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